Thinking about Archives

Sue Breakell on Negotiating the Archive (Breakell, 2008)summary and my thoughts

  • What is an archive? A space where things are hidden? Rows of impenetrable boxes? A collective memory bank (the National Archive).
  • To deprive oneself of the archive is to lose one’s memory – but can the sheer volume become overwhelming?
  • If there is too much information does the ‘archive’ become more valuable, the most important part?
  • A professional archive is a collection of historical records relating to something and/or the place where the record is kept.
  • Popular meaning – any group of gathered objects
    • Ketalaar- ‘By the People, of the People, for the People’ (Ketelaar, 2003)
  • The significance of an archive can depend on what it contains, but also how it is arranged, and the relationships of objects within it (which may change).
  • An archive is (or should be) more than just a collection, a set of traces that each throw light on the rest
  • An archivist should describe, but not interfere. But looking at the archive cannot be unbiased, what you see depends on both your interests and what you are looking for.
  • Curtin University – archives are frozen in time… linked to the past but also carried forward ….as they are re-presented and used
  • The context of the items is important, where did it come from? how was it created? A document is what remains – but is only part of the original event. Parts of the event will always be absent leading to ambiguity (Derrida). There are always gaps.
  • Why do we want archives?
    • An illusion of truth?
    • Steedman’s point – ‘the past is searched for something …. that confirms the searcher in his or her sense of self’(Steedman, 2006)
    • They give layers of meaning to life
  • Archives can be used to create personal histories (Goshka Macuga) – to find one’s identity when creating something
  • The act of remembrance involves both storage and retrieval. Traces of things that we respond to, reflections of ourselves in the world.


Breakell, S. (2008) Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive – Tate Papers. At: (Accessed 31/07/2020).

Ketelaar, E. (2003) “Being digital in people’s archives”, Archives & Manuscripts, 31(2), pp. 8-22. Available at: (Accessed: 31July2020).

Steedman, C. (2006) Dust. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


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